Karnataka HC junks Twitter’s plea on takedowns
The Union government's blocking orders are ‘reasoned decisions,’ the court observed, and fined the company Ts 50 lakh for ‘failing to act on time.’
The Karnataka high court on Friday dismissed a petition filed by Twitter challenging several content and account takedown orders issued by the government and fined the American company ₹50 lakh for failing to act on time.
The case and the decision hold significant implications for the government’s powers, and methods, to order online content to be made inaccessible, and makes it the first time a social media company has been slapped with a large fine.
The judge held that blocking orders are “reasoned decisions” founded on stronger footings of law, facts and evidentiary material. “The statutory committee comprises high functionaries of the government and there is no allegation of mala fide or the like levelled against them,” Justice Krishna S Dixit said in the order.
“For more than a year, the blocking orders were not implemented by the petitioner and there is no plausible explanation offered therefor,” the judgment said. “There is a wilful non-compliance of the blocking orders.”
Reacting to the high court’s decision, Union information technology minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said: “The court upholds our stand. Law of the land must be followed”.
The case traces back to 2021, when the government issued a series of orders to block 39 Twitter accounts among several others during the farmers protests. Twitter moved the Karnataka high court after the electronics and IT ministry, through a notice on June 26 last year, warned it of penal action against its chief compliance officer if it did not comply with the orders.
In the hearing that followed, several issues came up. These included basic questions about whether a foreign company can invoke the law to claim protections under the Indian Constitution, and more nuanced questions regarding the scope, prerogative and methods of the government in ordering takedowns.
Among these was whether the government had the power to block user accounts entirely, a move Twitter had said was excessive. The judge ruled that the government’s powers to issue a block “is not tweet specific and extends to users accounts in their entirety”, after noting that the “text, context & expanse” of the provision gave room for the government to “avert imminent harm”.
“State need not await the arrival of an avalanche of mishaps; it can take all preventive measures, in anticipation of the danger, more particularly when undoing of the damage is difficult, regard being had to its enormity,” it said in the order.
The judgment, in fact, referred to Twitter’s own decision to remove former US President Donald Trump (whose ban has since been removed by new owner Elon Musk) to back the government’s prerogative to block entire accounts.
Another issue was whether the orders are flawed because they do not communicate the reasons for which a piece of content is being blocked, a contention by Twitter that the judgment dismissed. The order said there was a strong link “between the orders and reasons assigned, and further that these reasons were disclosed to and discussed with the petitioner (Twitter) in the Committee meetings”.
A linked issue, on which too the court agreed with the government, was whether the orders were illegal because they did not involve giving the user the opportunity to be heard. On this, the court said: “The question of issuing notice to user of account would arise only where he is identifiable, all his particulars exclusively lying with the intermediary; at no point of time, such particulars were furnished nor issuance of notice was sought for… petitioner cannot espouse the cause of account users who have not aired any grievance.”
It also noted that the rules were phrased with the word ‘or’, implying reasons could be furnished either to the intermediary – the social media company – or the user. “Since Blocking Orders do have implications on the exercise of that right to whom it avails, the government may in its discretion hear the users of account. However, none of them has come forward to complain the infringement of their right. It is not that they are all downtrodden members of society or otherwise suffer from some handicap and therefore, they are disabled from working out the remedies on their own. Apparently, they are literate; presumably have more exposure to the outer world, as the very objectionable content of their posts would indicate,” it said.
The judgment noted that it had seen the blocking orders that were submitted to court in a sealed cover.
The judge also rejected Twitter’s argument that the blocking orders for the accounts were excessive, in that they were disproportionate to the purpose set out, and said that it would not lay down guidelines in these regards “at the instance of a foreign entity engaged in a speculative litigation”.
“Lastly to add, there is no sufficient empirical data that supports the argument of abuse of power which is structurally exercised. No provision in the Act nor in the Website Blocking Rules is pointed out to show that the respondents are under a legal duty to consider the request for review of the Blocking Orders,” it said.
The court was scathing on the San Francisco-based company for what it called a case of “speculative litigation”.
The ruling lays down clear red lines on who holds policing powers over online content. There are, nonetheless, legitimate questions that surround the process -- especially of transparency when the statutory committee vets them. It is up to the citizens, not private companies, to now press for more clarity on this domain.
Twitter has been in a protracted conflict with the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration over the content on its network, dating back to farmer protests in 2021.
“…for more than a year, the blocking orders were not implemented by the petitioner and there is no plausible explanation offered therefore. There is a wilful non-compliance of the blocking orders; arguably, such an act amounts to an offence under section 69 A (3) of the Act. The cascading adverse effect of non-compliance of such orders needs no research, nor reiteration,” the court said in a 109-page judgment.
The single judge bench said that due to the voluminous documents in the matter, the petition was heard for “days together, keeping at bay worthier causes of native litigants who were waiting in a militant silence and in a long queue”.
Union minister of state for electronics and IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar too welcomed the order and hit out at Jack Dorsey, who was part of the previous management that controlled the company when Twitter had approached the high court. “All platforms hv to be in compliance with Indian law n @Twitter under @jack [a reference to then CEO Jack Dorsey’s Twitter handle] repeatedly refused to do so,” he said, in a tweet on Friday, linking to the HC decision.
Experts said the judgment “is critical as it emphasises the obvious — that a social media intermediary (in this case Twitter) or any citizen or resident cannot play judge to decide if they will comply with a law”.
“The remedy against a disproportionate or unreasonable government order is to contest it before court and leave it to judicial review. If a social media platform decides not to comply and to not seek judicial intervention, it’s their option but that attracts penalties, and the Karnataka HC judgement is therefore significant as it displays a strong stand against casual breaches of law,” said senior advocate and founder of Cybersaathi, NS Nappinai.
“The Karnataka HC judgment sends out a right message that the law of the land must be accepted, even if you are a foreign entity doing business in India. Secondly, when you are complying with the law, you cannot decide whether it is good or bad. Only courts can decide this aspect as the right way is judicial review and not taking law in their own hands. Therefore, this judgment sends out a right message,” she added.
It was not clear whether Twitter planned to challenge the decision. The company did not respond to requests for a comment, sending an automated excrement emoji in reply, as has been the policy under its new owner Elon Musk.